Archive for January, 2015

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When I look back at the now-two-decade-long film career of Kevin Smith, I can’t escape the conclusion that it all just happened a little too fast for the guy : he went from “edgy” indie wunderkind with Clerks to tired one-note Johnny with Mallrats to an “older,wiser, more responsible” version of his previous self with Chasing Amy and Dogma to a one-man cottage industry milking his own semi-celebrity for all it’s worth (and then some) by way of podcasts, “reality” TV shows, etc. in the space of six or seven years, and then he basically remained stagnant — yet curiously immune to over-exposure — for about the next decade, occasionally trotting out middling “comedy” fare like Cop-Out and Zack And Miri Make A Porno (perhaps curiously, or perhaps not,  his two biggest box-office successes) to prove that he could break out of the confines of his internet-centric genre ghetto, but more or less not doing anything that you wouldn’t entirely expect of the guy.

Then, in 2011, something rather curious happened — he hustled up funds via Kickstarter (an entity which seems tailor-made for filmmakers such as himself with a somewhat small but amazingly loyal fan base) for an independent horror feature called Red State that, while deeply (and in many respects fatally) flawed, at least showed some willingness on his part to step outside of his comfort zone. And while that flick certainly bore all the hallmarks of a “one-and-done” type of deal, it appears that Smith, forthcoming (and depressingly inevitable) Clerks III aside, is embarking on a new phase of his career now — one that’s at the very least interesting, and perhaps even threatening to be good, Could the same guy whose irreverent take-no-prisoners approach to offending everyone with Clerks quickly descended to the tired “you never go ass to mouth” and donkey-fucking of its sequel possibly be positioning himself as an indie horror auteur as a sort of second (or maybe it’s third — or fourth) act? With the late 2014 release of Tusk, it’s beginning to look like the answer to that question is “yes.”

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Of course, many of the hallmarks of the Kevin Smith of old remain — he’s essentially unable to write characters that don’t come directly from his own life experiences ( this film centers around a protagonist named Wallace Bryton — played by Justin Shaw — who’s a — wait for it — podcaster by trade), and there’s a smattering of dull and tired “toilet humor” throughout the proceedings here, but by and large this is a reasonably intelligent, contemplative horror story that manages to tackle somewhat-weighty themes without having its characters resort to sounding like talking textbooks the way they did in heavy-handed earlier efforts like Chasing Amy and Dogma. It’s far from perfect, to be sure, and flirts perilously close to disaster by way of its major plot development, but Smith manages to battle his constant urge to overplay his hand with a reasonable level of success here, even if the central conceit of human-to-animal transformation has been done before (and, to be honest, better) in films like David Croneneberg’s The Fly and Tom Six’s apparently-still-ongoing Human Centipede series.To draw a forced and not entirely applicable (so why the fuck am I even doing it?) basketball metaphor, earlier directors set up a pretty clear lane to the basket for ol’ Kev, but rather than than charge hard to the hole and provide a rim-shattering slam dunk, he delivers a graceful, no-look, behind-the-back pass the to somebody else (probably a “2” guard) who has a wide-open look at a three-pointer. The results are less spectacular in the short term, but add up to an extra point for his team and, therefore,  a better chance at winning the game.

Okay, yeah, Smith wrote and directed this thing, so that wide-open off-guard he’s dishing that behind-the-back pass to is — errrmmm, himeslf — but like I said, the analogy isn’t the greatest. So what the hell — let’s strain it just a bit more, shall we?

Obviously when a center or forward indulges in a pass like that, he’s showing some trust in his teammate- and Smith the writer shows a heck of a lot of trust in Smith the director here when he chooses, arguably for the first time since Clerks, to be genuinely audacious. But first a bit of plot recap so that what I’m talling about will make at least a little bit of sense to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet : the storyline of Tusk follows the exploits of our aforementioned podcaster as he departs LA for Winnipeg in search of an overnight YouTube sensation he wants to get on his show. When that particular well turns out to be dry for an admittedly weird set of reasons, he encounters another local through a similarly bizarre convergence of circumstances and figures this old-timer, who goes by the name of Howard Howe (Red State holdover Michael Parks, who delivers a fine, and very chilling, performance) would make an even better on-digital-“air” guest. Unfortunately, their meeting — well, to put it mildly, it just doesn’t go as planned, and Wallace ends up waking up the next morning as an amputee.

Sounds bad, right? And rest assured, it is — but things are about to get even worse, because Howard’s got this weird fixation on walruses. He loves ’em so much, in fact, that he’s determined to make one —

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Tusk‘s small cast and isolated setting make for a genuinely claustrophobic-feeling film (even if the mansion most of it was shot in is enormous), and while Long doesn’t really have the acting chops to carry the lead, by about the mid-way point he’s just barking and yelping, anyway, so that’s not too big a problem. There’s a side-plot involving Wallace’s girlfriend, Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) and podcast  co-host, Teddy (Haley Joel “So That’s What Happened To Him” Osment) teaming up with a private dick to find him after he goes incommunicado in the Great White North that doesn’t add too terribly much to the film but apart from preventing it from becoming a two-character psychodrama, but it’s at least not distracting, either, and along the way Smith shows an impressive eye for shot composition and blocking his actors that I certainly never would have guessed at based on his previous work.

All in all, it adds up to a set of circumstances that really work in Smith’s favor by the time his “big reveal” comes to pass. I have no doubt that many folks will laugh out loud and/or shake their heads when the “walrus-man” makes his appearance (remember what I said about this flick being audacious?) — and I was even sorely tempted to do so myself — but the tone Smith manages to set in the early-to-mid-going helps to head that off at the pass and actually ensures that the second half is both damn horrifying and thoroughly engrossing. It’s a close call, to be sure, but it’s proof positive of the “Smith the writer trusting the Smith the director” thing we just talked about.

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Okay, so Smith does, in fact, overplay his hand with the insertion of an obvious and thoroughly uninspired song choice that accompanies his big climax here, and a surprise cameo by Johnny Depp feels a bit like a desperate ploy on the director’s part to prove he’s still got plenty of clout in Tinseltown, but on the whole this flick shows a willingness to be bold and take chances that I honestly didn’t think we’d ever see from him again. Red State may have been a baby step — or even a stumble — in the right direction, but this is a fairly impressive leap, and has me re-thinking the whole “Kevin Smith? That guy’s been played out for years” notion that I was living by.

For those interested, Tusk — which had only the most limited of theatrical runs and has largely been marketed to so-called “home viewing platforms” — has just come out on DVD and Blu-ray from Lionsgate and boasts an impressive package of extras including two behind-the-scenes featurettes, a selection of deleted scenes, and a full-length commentary track from Smith that’s surprisingly light on the self-indulgence and reasonably interesting throughout. Weird as it would have sounded a couple of years ago to say this, I get the feeling that Kevin Smith may be on the verge of making a truly great horror movie — and while this may not be it (yet), he’s inching ever closer all the time.

 

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What a difference a month makes.

Thirty-some days ago, everybody was up in arms about North Korea’s alleged “hack” into Sony’s purportedly “secure” computer systems, and when word got out that the object of that tiny, starving little nation’s ire was the not-quite-released- at- the- time James Franco/Seth Rogen “comedy” vehicle The Interview, suddenly movie fans everywhere propelled this flick to the top of their “must-see” list — especially when Sony reversed their decision to shelve the film and announced that they were “bravely” going to screen it in select theaters and make it available for purchase online despite the “threats” they’d purportedly received from representatives of dictator Kim Jong Un stating that “9/11-style terrorist attacks” would be forthcoming if the film ever saw the light of day.

Sure, some of us were calling bullshit on the whole thing from the outset (check my facebook and twitter feeds if you don’t believe I smelled a rat from day one) — we’re talking about a country where hardly anybody even has internet access let alone “super-hacker” skills, after all — but now it seems the tide has turned. The movie was screened, no “9/11-style terrorist attacks” ever took place, and everyone who put up tweets along the lines of “going to see The Interview today because, goddamit, free speech matters” can pat themselves on the back for being noble crusaders for the first amendment. The good guys won here, right? Heck, now all of you high-and-mighty “free speech” champions can even see this thing on Netflix absolutely free (which is how I caught it last night).

Except — almost no actual “cyber security” experts believe North Korea was behind the “hack” anymore. The idea that they could even launch “9/11-style terrorist attacks” if they wanted to  is utter nonsense. And Sony laughed all the way to the bank, as a film that no doubt would have been completely lost among a crowd of high-profile, big-budget holiday season releases raked in more money via internet downloads than it ever would have made at the box office.

Let’s just call this for what it is — the most epic publicity hustle in Hollywood history. I promise you, somewhere the late,  legendary showbiz huckster William Castle is having a long, hard laugh at this whole thing, because the scale of Sony’s scam is so far beyond his wildest dreams and imaginings. I couldn’t say for sure whether the “hack” was an “inside job” or not — theories abound that a disgruntled former employee may be the one responsible — but that doesn’t even really matter at this point : the minute Sony’s systems were compromised, either from within or without,  some enterprising marketing whiz there decided to blame it on an easy target, and use the situation to make The Interview both the most-talked about film in a good long while and a symbol for armchair and internet “freedom” crusaders everywhere.

There’s just one pesky little detail that all the carnival barking and righteous indignation in the world can’t cover up, though — the flick itself is a festering, oozing, putrefying,  tapeworm-infested pile of six-week-old dogshit that’s completely devoid of any redeeming qualities whatsoever.

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Meet complete fucking asshole Dave Skylark (James Franco), an egotistical, shallow, stupid TV talk show host who will fuck anything, and his producer, Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen), an insecure, personality-free, tepid nebbish who wants to do “serious” news. The two share a painfully dull Hollywood “bromance,” but much as they might joke about it, (which is absolutely all of the time) don’t worry — they’re not really gay,   and they both spend the better part of the next two hours desperately trying to prove it. In fact, this flick oozes with the kind of deep-seated homophobia that only the self-proclaimed “hip” can get away with, whether it’s playing a fictitious scene of Eminem “coming out of the closet” for laughs, or having Rogen’s dipshit character shove a metallic projectile up his asshole while stressign again and again that nothing’s ever been up there before, the message here is clear — “hey, we’re cool 21st-century cats who have no problem with gay people, but please! Don’t anybody accuse us of being queer ourselves!”

If that setup sounds “funny” to you, then you’ll probably love the overall level of the “humor” in this flick, since it never figures out that being crass, boorish, and crude isn’t the same thing as actual, ya know, comedy. The entire movie is an endless succession of dick jokes, fart jokes, jerk-off jokes, and shit jokes, all delivered with such a coy wink and nudge to the audience that you’ll actually miss being in the first grade because, hell, back then at least you had an excuse to laugh at this kind of garbage — you weren’t old enough to know any better.

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Now you are, though, and I hate to be the one to break it to you, but The Interview is a movie made by morons for morons. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not above seriously brain-dead “retard humor” myself — shit, I number King Frat among my all-time favorite films — but at least the makers of the dumb-fuck comedies of yesteryear didn’t think they deserved a fucking medal for their cleverness the way that Franco and Rogen do. I’m especially going to fault Rogen here since he co-directed the film along with Evan Goldberg (who, funny enough, worked with these two assholes and a bunch more on the equally un-funny and ego-stroking This Is The End) and co-wrote the screenplay, but really, when there’s this much blame to spread around, no one is really innocent.

By the time the “action” moves to North Korea, we get a reasonably competent performance from Randall Park as dictator Kim Jong Un, but hey, whaddya know — turns out his character’s entire raison d’etre is to desperately  (and, again, endlessly) prove that he’s not gay, too! All the “honeydick” jokes in the world aside, don’t you worry, hung-up homophobes in the audience — these dudes are all straight as a line and just love pussy.

Problem is, the film itself doesn’t seem to like women very much, as evidenced by the fact that Rogen’s purported “love interest” (played by Diana Bang) is never given a last name, and the closest thing Franco gets to a “love interest” — the duo’s CIA “handler” (Lizzy Caplan) who is in charge of co-ordinating their assassination attempt on Un — is never given a first name. There a million and one “guy movies” out there where women are treated as interchangeable pieces of meat, sure, but few are this fucking brazen about it.

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So, yeah — at the end of the day,  this is what we “fighting for,” I guess. The “right” to watch worthless films with worthless “stars” whose egos are so monumental that they put the real Kim Jong Un — who’s known for having statues erected in his honor and plastering portraits of his face in every building in his country — to shame. Tell you what, if this is what The Interview is like, I don’t want whatever job it is they’re offering.

 

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What is it that makes a hero?

There are probably as many different answers to that question as there are people reading this (in other words, probably a few hundred if my daily wordpress stats are to be believed), but there are some character traits that I think we would all consider to be heroic : willingness to sacrifice oneself for the well-being of others, truthfulness, bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, staying firm in one’s ideals (assuming they’re decent ideals, of course) even when it’s dangerous to do so, etc.

By those standards, then, the “most lethal sniper in U.S. history,” Chris Kyle — who is credited by the Navy with over 160 kills in Iraq, while in his  memoir, American Sniper (upon which, needless to say, Clint Eastwood’s new film is based), he himelf puts the number northwards of 250 — probably meets most people’s definition of what a “hero” is. But let’s take a moment to consider things more closely, shall we?

Without wishing to step into a political minefield (whoops, wrong military metaphor there) with this review, let me just state right off the bat that I haven’t read Kyle’s book, but I have been following the ongoing brouhaha about the movie’s divergence from it online, and I find a lot of what I’ve heard about what Kyle wrote (or, more than likely, had ghost-written for him) fairly troubling : he says that he “enjoyed” killing; that he “never hesitated”; that he considered any and all Iraqis — women, kids, you name it — to be “enemies”; that the fact he took so many lives “never troubled him.” Chances are that an autobiography written by Henry Lee Lucas would read much the same way, yet one guy was buried with full military honors while the other sits in a prison cell for the rest of his life.

Now, hold on a minute — before you think I’m necessarily equating what Kyle did with the actions of one of history’s most notorious serial killers, rest assured that I am fully aware that numerous legal distinctions exist between murder on the field of combat and murder for the sheer, depraved love of it — but let’s remember that Kyle did, in fact, claim to have “enjoyed” his work, to the point where even boasted of bringing his “skills” to the homefront and “taking out” numerous “looters” during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina while in the employ of the notorious Blackwater “security” firm. If that’s indeed the case, then the line between trained killer in combat and serial killer on the streets (a line that’s drawn, I suspect, as much to ease the collective conscience of the public as it is  the conscience of the individual soldier) is pretty thin in this case.

Eastwood and his screenwriter, Jason Hall, wisely ignore this period in their protagonist’s life, not only because showing Kyle working for Blackwater would immediately piss off about half the people in the theater, but because that particular piece of chest-thumping on his part could never be confirmed, and our guy Chris was known to fabricate stuff when it suited his purposes — just ask Jesse Ventura, who won a $1.8 million defamation of character suit brought against the late sniper’s estate when Kyle boasted of having punched the wrestler-turned-governor out after Ventura supposedly said (at a Navy SEAL gathering, of all places) that he was glad so many SEALs got killed in Iraq because we never should have been there in the first place.

Now,  there are those who would argue that Ventura, who isn’t always known for engaging in the most responsible rhetoric himself, was only getting a taste of his own medicine and that in some weird way he and Kyle probably deserved each other, but no matter how much you might dislike ol’ Jesse, you’d have to be born yesterday to think that he’d be flat-out stupid enough to tell a room full of his fellow SEALs that he was glad a whole bunch of their brethren were dead. So Chris Kyle and the truth weren’t always, shall we say, strong allies  (there’s one of the qualities of heroism we opened this review with scratched off the list, then), but to me the most disturbing thing here is that even if the American Sniper never killed anybody in New Orleans — and I sincerely hope he didn’t — he wanted people to think that he did, and I’m sorry, but that’s just plain fucked up.

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You’d never guess that Kyle had this rather ugly side to his personality from Bradley Cooper’s portrayal in the film, though. Cooper does a fairly decent acting job here — apparently he put on 40 pounds of pure muscle for the role — and his version of Kyle comes across as a well-meaning, “standup guy”-type who ultimately grows to have doubts about both the war in Iraq itself and his place in it. In short, he shows both a conscience and a depth of character that the person he’s portraying never did. And that disconnect from reality is at the heart of my concerns with American Sniper.

Just to lay my cards on the table, I initially had no intention of seeing this movie — it looked like another glorified military recruitment ad, and as far as I’m concerned the Pentagon can do its own PR work without enlisting Hollywood’s help, but the more I read about it, the more intrigued I became. To be sure, Eastwood has crafted a technically fine film here, with some standout scenes that drip with tension and are beautifully shot (the one that shows Kyle running through a dust storm in order to hop into the back of a fleeing troop carrier is especially memorable), and there’s no doubt that I was surprised to see a notable right-winger like Clint take such a nuanced approach to this subject matter. I expected two-plus hours of macho flag-waving, and ended up seeing a reasonably gripping and emotionally involving tale about the heavy price that war claims on the part of those who participate in it. It’s no Saving Private Ryan (incidentally, Steven Spielberg was originally attached to this project as director, but pulled out in the rather early going) or Full Metal Jacket, by any means, but it certainly shows that the battlefield is no picnic and does so in a way that most level-headed people on either side of the Iraq war debate will find fair-minded and thought-provoking.

Let’s be honest, though — not everybody is all that fair-minded, and some of the online attacks that critics who were less than enthusiastic about this film have been subjected to have been just plain unhinged. A recent piece on The Guardian website showed just a sampling of the ugly tweets that reactionary extremists have directed at various cinematic scribes, and it’s pretty ugly stuff, which leads one to wonder — what, exactly, is at the core of this desperate need to lionize the actions of a guy who’s killed either 160-ish or 250-ish (depending on whose numbers you believe) people? If you come into the debate with the view that the war in Iraq was somehow fought for the purposes of “keeping us safe” or “protecting our country” or somesuch, fine, but at least be honest enough to ask yourself — would any of the people Kyle killed because they posed a danger to his fellow soldiers have even been a danger to them if we hadn’t invaded their country in the first place? And what lengths would you be willing to go to in order to drive out a foreign army that showed up on your doorstep and plunged your nation into a conflict that you and your fellow citizens never asked for? Shit, as much as I actively despised George W. Bush and as much as I’m profoundly disappointed-to-the-point-of-disgust with Barack Obama, I wouldn’t want another nation to come in here and depose either one of them, and if said nation’s military forces were tearing through my neighborhood, I’d probably be willing to get up off my ass and try to fight them off (not that I’d be much good at it).

Again, no disrespect intended here to any readers who think there was something noble and/or just about our invasion of Iraq, but if you really want to be able to defend that position, you would be well advised to consider it from all perspectives in order to formulate a truly solid view — and the same goes for those of us who weren’t in favor of the war; I know that my knee-jerk initial opposition to it couldn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and it took a certain amount of time before I was able to fully grasp all the intricacies of the issue and to state in cogent terms why this was a war of choice and not necessity that was  being fought more for the sake of corporate profits than anything to do with notions of freedom or security. If you buy into Chris Kyle as portrayed on film, those same doubts, and that same feeling of profound disillusionment, eventually came to inform his own outlook on the war — but that, as it turns out, is all just propaganda of a different sort than I’d be banking on before seeing American Sniper.

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Even so, there’s no denying that it’s effectively constructed propaganda,  and that it’s propaganda of a rather surprising nature. My initial concerns that Eastwood was going to engage in a glorification of the war and of his protagonist (concerns that I stated pretty bluntly on a facebook conversation thread that earned me my very first internet “stalker” and gave me a taste, in microcosm, of what some of the “real” critics have been forced to put up with) were ill-founded, but his decision instead to engage in a full-on rehab effort of Chris Kyle’s reputation could, perhaps, be even more of a whitewash than the one I was worried about.

Or is it? There’s little doubt that if, say, Oliver Stone indulged in this sort of historical revisionism that he’d be positively raked over the coals for it while Dirty Harry finds himelf more or less getting a free pass, but at least American Sniper gives a realistic accounting of what most vets who have been forced to kill go through psychologically, and shows in a fairly unflinching light how combat, and the inability to leave it behind, can seriously damage a soldier’s home life, as well, by way of Sienna Miller’s very nice turn as Kyle’s long-suffering wife, Taya. This may not be Chris Kyle’s story per se, but it’s a pretty good story nonetheless.

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Up until the end, of course, when our  sharpshooter met his death at the hands of another veteran under circumstances that can be fairly described as almost mind-bogglingly bizarre and tragic. One thing both American Sniper the book and the film seem to agree on is that helping his fellow vets was important to Kyle, and whether or not one perceives of his actions on the battlefield as being “heroic,” his volunteerism in service to his brothers in arms certainly was. Eastwood declines the opportunity to show the shooting range incident that we’re all no doubt familiar with itself, but in a moment of supreme Hollywood cheesiness he takes second to portray the other party involved as being a leering, sinister, “creepy” figure — which is sort of a shame because he spends so much of the rest of the film eschewing such simplistic, pat, two-dimensionality.

Oh well. Clint might take the easy way out, but I give him a certain amount of credit for not taking it nearly so easy up to that point. I just wish that Chris Kyle as he really was bore more resemblance to his Hollywood version — even if I’ll always be troubled by the fact that they felt the need to clean up his story in the first place.

To drag us back to where we started, then, it seems that the media is determined to make a hero out Chris Kyle one way or another — regardless of whether or not you, I, or anyone else thinks that he was. When he was alive,  it was through a book that portrayed him as a ruthless, reflexive, unthinking, unfeeling killing machine, who never lost a moment’s sleep over his actions and always felt he was in the right. Now that he’s gone, it’s though a film that shows him as an actual human being suffering the same sorts of psychological traumas that almost any of us, apart from the truly psychotic, would be going through in his situation. The latter makes for better storytelling on the silver screen now that the war in which he served is supposedly “over”, while the former made for effective inspirational/recruitment material while said war was still going on — but neither addresses the key issue of why it’s apparently so important that his guy be considered a “hero” in the first place.

I take a look at George Romero’s “Empire Of The Dead : Act Two” #5 for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Through the Shattered Lens

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And so we find ourselves at the close of another act of what is proving to the longest-form epic to ever come from the mind and pen of the father of the modern zombie genre with George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead Act Two #5, and underneath Alexander Lozano’s absolutely superb pulp-inspired cover painting we find that the guy who started it all is ending this one on a decidedly more small-scale — and downbeat — note than the “looming disaster” finale he gave us in his first act.

Not that disaster isn’t still looming — it certainly is, and it’s more mystery-shrouded than ever, but just when everything — and I do mean everything — seems to be boiling over in this issue, Romero takes a side-step, dials back on the danger, and gives us a genuinely personal and frankly tragic cliffhanger to send this five-issue arc out on.I…

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So this is it. After months of relentless hype and build-up, the opening salvo of Dis/Mar’s full-spectrum Star Wars dominance has arrived in the form of the new Star Wars #1 from Marvel Comics. Get ready for more, of course — the year-long lead-up to the new SW flick, The Force Awakens, is going to get positively deafening. We’ve only just begun.

And the four-color page seems a natural enough place to start things off, given that the second Disney purchased Lucasfilm lock, stock, and barrel it was obvious where the Star Wars license was going to go once Dark Horse’s deal for the property expired at the end of 2014. Marvel is using “back home” as their motto not only for this series, but the solo series featuring Darth Vader, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, et. al. to come, and while it’s true that they were the first to publish Star Wars spin-off comics, I’m not sure if what’s going on here isn’t more of a consolidation than a true “homecoming.”

Still, make no mistake — a lot is riding on this book, and especially on this first issue. Marvel has put this out stapled between no fewer than 100 (yes, you read that right) variant covers (of which I’m only including a few examples —- hmm, can you guess which one is by Skottie Young?), and a distribution deal with Toys ‘R’ Us has them confidently predicting that this will be the first comic to sell a million copies in well over a decade.

Honestly, it’s enough to make the early ’90s — when people argued over whether or not Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1 was a “legit” million-seller because it featured two different covers — seem quaint, isn’t it? Of course, the profits involved here are staggeringly higher,  even though the numbers being bandied about are similar,  simply because Spider-Man hit the stands with a cover price of $1.50, while Star Wars costs a mind-boggling $4.99, and it doesn’t exactly take a math whiz to figure out that a million books at five bucks a pop adds up to five million dollars. Sure, the price per issue Marvel is getting from Diamond — and Diamond from the stores — is a lot lower than the $4.99 us dumb suckers have to pay, but considering that the variant covers are being parceled out based on number of orders per shop, and that most of them cost anywhere from $10 to $50 depending on their “rarity,” five mil seems like a pretty solid bet for this book’s total take for its publisher at the end of the day.

Tell ya what, Marvel will probably reach that lofty goal, too — at my local comic shop this morning (Comic Book College on Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis) there were all kinds of people pouring in who quite obviously hadn’t set foot in the place in years, if ever, and most of ’em were buying both the regular five dollar version to read and at least one of the variants, most of which were in the $12-$20 range, to bag, board, and presumably save forever — or to hustle off on eBay within the next week when demand will be at its highest, take your pick. One guy I saw was buying six different copies of what is, let’s face it, exactly the same comic.

Well, to quote In Living Color, homie don’t play dat, so I just walked out the door with the bog-standard version only, and I damn near didn’t even get that because this way a pricey enough Wednesday as it is, what with a number of actually good books coming out.

The common theme you’ll be hearing, of course, is that this temporary surge of interest is “good for comics,” because at least a few of the hard-core Star Wars fans out there who come into the shop will find a few other things to try, and if they like ’em, they’ll be back. Maybe that’s true — but I remain skeptical that this hoopla will be “good” for anyone other than Marvel, and that even for them it will represent only a temporary bump at best. Consider — the nearest thing conceptually to Star Wars to come out this week was the newest issue of Image Comics’ frankly far superior sci-fi series, Copperhead, and my LCS only ordered its usual five or six copies of that, despite the fact that anyone who takes a chance on that title probably will be back for more, while your average Star Wars customer, assuming they’re not completely drunk on Lucas Kool-Aid, is simply going to go home, read the thing, and feel instantly ripped off.

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All of which is my none-too-subtle way of saying that, you guessed it, I didn’t like the book. Oh, sure, I probably should have given the fact that it boasts a trio of “A-list” creators in writer Jason Aaron, artist John Cassaday, and colorist Laura Martin, but once the story proper starts in (after a mind-numbing four introductory “design pages” at the front), it becomes pretty clear that everyone involved is mailing this one in. Cassaday’s art looks okay but is nowhere near his usual standard with uncharacteristically sloppy character forms and facial expressions, Martin’s colors are solid enough but don’t really add any depth of feeling or atmosphere to the panels, and Aaron’s script is a threadbare run-around in space peppered with just enough quick and easy “spot-on” bits of dialogue to fool lazy readers into thinking he “gets” these characters. Shit, after spending most of the preceding 29 pages setting up some lame non-negotiation for the supply of unspecified “raw materials” to the Empire from our barely-disguised Rebel forces, the story ends on the most predictable cliff-hanger of all — a splash page teasing a looming light saber battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Hmmm — where have we seen that done both before and better?

From the moment I read the initial announcement regarding the creative teams behind these titles, the choice of Aaron to script the main series puzzled me. Yes, he’s one of the best writers in mainstream comics today — Scalped and Southern Bastards prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt — but gritty rural-ish “noir” seems to be his forte, and his one foray into the cosmic that I’ve read, Thanos Rising, was almost remorselessly uninspiring stuff, despite featuring some truly incredible art from Simone Bianchi. There’s probably nobody in the industry I’d rather have telling me stories set in Deep South backwaters or on “The Rez,” but as far as space operas go, Aaron just isn’t the man for the job. Sorry.

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Cassaday, on the other hand, definitely seemed like a “home run” choice for artist, but he’s really off his game here. Presented with a number of chances to do some truly dynamic, memorable splash pages — I believe there were three in this issue alone — his work instead appears stiff, uninspired, and even out of proportion. Is this really the same guy who did all those beautiful issues of Captain America a decade ago? He seems a shadow of his former self here.

Still,  while the choice of Aaron and the work turned in by Cassaday were both surprising — and not in a good way — what doesn’t surprise me in the least is Marvel’s decision to set these stories in between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. If you’ll recall, the first issues of Marvel’s spin-off Star Wars comic came out right after the first film and before the second was able to further “nail down” Lucas’ mythology, and consequently, a number of things that the creators of those books, most notably Archie Goodwin and Howard Chaykin, came up with were subsequently either ignored completely, or changed beyond recognition in Empire and Return Of The Jedi — things like a skinny, yellow-skinned Jabba the Hut with long walrus whiskers, or that pesky flashback scene that shows Luke’s father being killed in a light saber fight (of course) by Darth Vader. Clearly, there are numerous continuity issues here that Marvel probably won’t bother trying to actually resolve, but will do their damndest to bury under a raft of new, more technically “accurate” stories set in the same period.

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This is one reader who definitely won’t be sticking around to see how it all plays out, though. Star Wars #1 was so thoroughly mediocre, with all of the principal creators giving such a sub-par effort, that no matter how much better things get (assuming that they do), it won’t be enough to even drag this series kicking and screaming up to “average” status. Once upon a time, we got really well-done imaginative Star Wars comics, but that feels like it happened a long time ago in a galaxy — well, you know the rest.

 

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There’s a little thing in the media called “The Time Magazine Cover Curse” — the theory goes that whenever a person finally makes it onto the cover of Time,  it’s all downhill from there. In the sports world, “The Madden Cover Curse” serves the same function, as history shows that whatever NFL player is selected to be on the cover of that year’s Madden video game from EA Sports invariably has a shit season.

In the movie world, we have something similar, although it has no name — whenever a flick comes along and garners a little bit too much praise from a few too many people, it triggers a backlash. Sometimes that’s for the best — I trust by now that we’ve all figured out that Diablo Cody-scripted movies are unmitigated shit — and sometimes it’s totally unjust, as is usually the case when the hardened cadre of Tarantino-haters come crawling out of the woodwork to trash his latest effort after the first few weeks of glowing reviews have settled down a bit.

Something along those lines seems to be happening right now to Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent, whose recently-released indie horror The Babadook  (which I caught on-demand via our local cable TV company because it’s not playing anywhere around here theatrically — sigh) came out of nowhere to meet with not just high praise, but delirious levels of high praise. I think the film could have survived that just fine — I know, it’s weird to talk about “surviving” a deluge of terrific press notices, please bear with me here — but what doomed it to being knocked down a peg was, I think, when no less an authority than William Friedkin said it was the scariest thing he’d ever seen since a little number he made called The Exorcist. Suddenly, the bar was set too high. Sure, Kent’s modest,  low-budget production might be good, but there’s no way it could be that good.

Predictably, the claws came out. The gloves came off. The die was cast. The “haters” had themselves a new target.

In recent weeks, the IMDB score for The Babadook has been dropping like a rock as negative reviews have started to pour in — when I first checked in on it a few weeks back, it had a very respectable 8.1 rating ; now it’s down to a more modest 6.9, which, I’ll grant you, is still 6.9 points higher than any movie I’d make could ever muster for itself, but still — a clear pattern is emerging, and it’s saying “The Babadook doesn’t live up to the hype.”

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Not that it ever asked for the hype, of course — I called Kent’s production a “modest” one a moment ago, and that’s exactly what it is : a tense, highly claustrophobic affair about Amelia,  a tragedy-stricken single mother (played with Oscar-worthy merit by the incredible Essie Davis) who’s losing her young son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman) to the dark corners of his richly-vivid fantasy world, and those corners are creeping in ever closer since a decidedly grim old-school (as in, “evil monsters are coming to eat you little shits”) fairy tale book called “Mister Babadook” appeared in their home.

Sam was always a precocious sort, but now things are just plain getting out of hand : his school can’t handle him, his few friends have soured on him, and he absolutely, positively,  won’t shut up. Amelia’s doing her best, but any single parent can tell you that it’s a damn-near impossible job even under the best of circumstances, and soon her son’s behavior begins taking a toll on her work life, her already-barely-existent personal life, and her sanity itself.

You see, that Babadook creature he keeps going on and on about? Turns out it might just be real after all.

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Kent’s refusal to clearly “nail down” what’s really happening and what isn’t for much of the film’s runtime has left some viewers and reviwers a bit unimpressed at worst and confused at best, but for my part I rather enjoyed that aspect of the proceedings : you needn’t tell me what’s real if you do a decent enough job of showing me what’s happening (or what isn’t) and letting me decide for myself. Besides,  the Neil Gaiman-esque “dark fantasy”elements of the story are so nicely — and creepily —realized that,  on a purely technical level, I don’t see how anyone can fault Kent’s execution here, nor the expert pacing she employs as she continuously ups the psychological ante and uses the monster as metaphor for the fear all parents harbor of not being able to understand their own flesh and blood. Honestly, all I can do is scratch my head and wonder where all the naysayers are getting their ammo.

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And then it occurs to me — not only are they shooting blanks, they’re firing at the wrong target.  It’s not the film itself they don’t like, but the raised expectations they had going in. Kent’s movie is as near to flawless an example of psychological horror as you’re likely to find, but it does have a few weaknesses (most notably in its criminal under-utilization of the superb actor Daniel Henshall, who’s relegated to a bit part here after blowing audiences away with his work in The Snowtown Murders), and dammit, us horror fans are always looking — and, crucially, hoping — for perfection. The Babadook isn’t without warts — and it certainly isn’t the scariest movie since The Exorcist — but it’s close enough for me, and rather  than dwell on its minor faults, I choose instead to praise its numerous significant achievements.

 

Nightcrawler

I don’t know if you watched the late local news tonight (I didn’t, I was at the movies — can you guess what I was seeing?), but odds are good that if you did, there was a psychopath in front of the camera waving a gun or a knife around, particularly if you live in a major urban area like New York or Los Angeles. Guys like that seem to be a dime a dozen these days, and sometimes they even wear uniforms and badges.

Well, writer/director Dan Gilroy seems to have hit on a nifty little twist to that scenario for his new(-ish) film, Nightcrawler — what if you put the psychopath behind the camera?

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Louis Bloom (played with considerable relish by Jake Gyllenhaal) is our high-tech Travis Bickle, a guy with little formal education but a lot of drive who’s landed on hard times in our supposedly “recovering” economy and decides to makes lemons from lemonade by parlaying his skills as a small-time thief into a career as a freelance news videographer. By his own admission — despite the fact that he sounds like a living, breathing “Intro to Business 101” textbook and comes off as purely cynical and calculating — he understands people just fine, he just doesn’t like them very much, and every situation and individual he encounters is quickly filtered through the prism of the master plan he has to make it to the top of his newly-chosen profession. He needs other people, sure, but never on a permanent basis and the depths to which he’s willing to sink in order to “get the story” are truly breathtaking to behold. The word “ethics” clearly isn’t part of his vocabulary, and if the line between right and wrong doesn’t intimidate him, you can bet that the line between legal and illegal scares him even less. He’s a man on a mission, and you don’t want to stand in his way.

It’s pretty clear that Louis is aiming for much bigger things than we’d even realized when he blows off a big-time offer to join a veteran camera crew led by his chief rival (played by Bill Paxton) and opts instead to take over the market lock, stock , and barrel by the most ruthless and underhanded means possible — and he’s got an only semi-willing accomplice in his long-range schemes in the form of Nina Romina (Rene Russo, in full-on MILF mode), news director of TV station 6 in L.A., who is the first to give Louis his “big break” but quickly becomes dependent upon him for the sensationalistic footage she loves to lead with every night. Louis wants more than just a business relationship with his benefactor, though, and, ever the blunt negotiator, it’s implied that he succeeds in managing to trade his wares for sexual favors, as well. Anything for ratings, I guess.

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It’s obvious that Gilroy is tackling a number of themes with his stylish and intelligent thriller here — the victory of tabloid-style “journalism” over the real thing, the depravity that economic desperation can cause — but by and large Nightcralwer works best as a character study of Louis Bloom himself, and the whole movie rides on Gyllenhaal’s shoulders. To say that he delivers is an understatement of criminal proportions, as he’s positively electric and delivers one of the most maniacally intense and darkly charismatic performances I’ve seen in a major studio flick in some time. There’s plenty of Oscar talk swirling around his work here, as well there should be : this is career-defining stuff here.

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The film also works as a metaphor for “how to get ahead in business,” and can be seen — should you choose to do so — as a rather damning indictment of the sort of “cream” that rises to the top under capitalism : somebody with no morals, no conscience, and driven solely by empty ambition. Viewed through that lens, it’s fair to say that Nightcrawler is so damn good it’s scary.